Pravin Amre never won the Ranji Trophy as a player, but in his three years as Mumbai's coach he has won the Ranji title twice. Surely, the journey has not been smooth, but he has been able to get the best out of the Mumbai outfit once again. He shares Mumbai's journey to their 38th Ranji crown
Two years ago when you won for the first time, you said you should be judged down the line, and not over one season. You must be a proud man now?
This was something special, especially after last year's disappointment. We knew Mumbai is a champion side, but I still had a role to play: preparing advance training modules, keeping the dressing-room atmosphere positive, picking a balanced team every game, taking bold decisions.
The journey was terrific. It is great to see that happiness on each and every face. The icing on the cake was sharing the moment with Sachin [Tendulkar] and Zaheer [Khan], and they also enjoyed the victory. Last evening we had a team dinner. Sachin congratulated each and ever member of the team for working hard and playing a part in winning the title. He said, 'Zaheer and I only joined in the semi-finals, but you were the guys who made us win the title.' He thanked me for putting in the hard work behind the scenes, and Wasim [Jaffer] for leading from the front.
What were the mistakes from last year that you eliminated?
I had spoken to John Buchanan few years ago. He was in a similar position as me - everyone in Australia wants the team to be champions always. Since Buchanan's team had a lot of star players I checked with him how he handled them in particular. The first thing Buchanan told me was I needed to keep my ego in the back pocket. That has helped me a lot in handling the Mumbai team. Without disturbing the egos of the star players, I had to get the best out of them. That was the most difficult thing.
What were the challenges before the season had commenced?
The first challenge was to get a proper composition: whether to go with six batsmen or with five bowlers. Last year we fell short by a bowler so we added one this time, and probably that helped us to bowl out the opposition twice maximum times.
Thanks to Dilip Vengsarkar we travelled to Anantapur to play practice games against Andhra as it was raining in Mumbai. Even if we lost three out of the four games it was a very important to get into the rhythm after the off-season. Then we lost to Saurashtra in Buchi Babu, and the critics started to pan us. But it did not matter to me. In those pre-season matches I was working out the individual strengths. At the same time the management decided that we would continue with only those who performed in Anantapur first and then in Buchi Babu. We wanted performers to help us get outright victories. Another key thing was I wanted Wasim to get a feel of his players as we had decided to appoint him the captain for the new season.
That appointment might have raised a few eyebrows especially as Amol Muzumdar was a Ranji-winning captain two years ago, and the side's highest run-getter last year. So what was the idea behind replacing him with Jaffer?
Firstly I must give credit to Wasim for staying with Mumbai. Before the season began Maharashtra had given him an offer and were willing to pay him any amount of money, but he opted to stay with Mumbai. That was the wisest decision he took as he would have ended up playing only league games there. Now he has won the Ranji Trophy, and also topped the run charts. Personally I felt Wasim, too, was going through a lean phase as he had failed at the international level, but he still had it in him to play for the country and needed to prove himself once again on the domestic circuit. He is a quality opening batsman, and we felt that the additional responsibility would motivate him further. So we dragged him out of the comfort zone to become more responsible for himself and the team.
Was there a vision plan after last year's exit?
I knew we had talented players who could go to the next level. If you look properly we have had the same team mostly - the only difference has been we started more intelligently this season. I got TA Sekar to screen a pool of 25 fast bowlers and categorise them as 'potential', 'raw', 'developing', or 'flawed'. As a coach I shared my work with him, and that part was very important. For the first time the management knew there were back-up bowlers, which encouraged a healthy competition.
Travel was going to be another impediment if not handled properly. If we played 10 games counting the final that would mean a total of 41 playing days, about 65 including the travel. That was a tough itinerary as, at times, there was only a two-day gap between matches. That meant the bowlers would not get enough time for recovery, so we had to shuffle them.
Was there any form of team-building exercise you worked on?
Every player voted after every game for a Man of the Match, and I would declare the name so the player would know he had his colleagues' support. Then I decided that if any player was late, not only him but the entire team would play the fine because I wanted them to think it was their team and everyone needed to be responsible.
Around the halfway mark in the league stage you were forced to follow on against Saurashtra, and you just about managed to avoid defeat. Was there any complacency after two outright victories?
That was the toughest game although we saved it in the end. But whatever happened was good, and I told the boys that we were much better than the result showed. And when your last pair can bat for a long time like Usman [Malvi] and Dhawal [Kulkarni] did in the first innings, and then Ramesh [Powar] played an uncharacteristic 171-ball 23 in the final innings, I knew my team was back on the track.
The presence of Tendulkar in the dressing room must have been a welcome change for you?
Once he was there my job was that of the caretaker. He should communicate with the players more as he has tremendous passion for Mumbai and its cricket, and is always concerned about its welfare. Even after the Saurashtra game he was there in the nets to boost our morale. So with him around. I could be relieved and didn't need to cover every point. His presence was important.
Apparently Tendulkar had an honest chat with the entire squad after the semi-final against Saurashta. What was his message before the final?
We had scored 647, but still struggled to bowl out Saurashtra. We were lucky to escape as the rain arrived just half hour after play was called off on the final afternoon otherwise we would have missed out. Sachin's message was that if we had to be real champions the attitude and approach had to be important. For that we needed to be more fearless. At times in the semis, he pointed out, players were going through motions but a champion side always dictates the events.
Last year you pointed fingers at the batsmen for playing the wrong shots. How did you work on that?
I made my own plans on how each batsman would contribute. The way they got out never helped the team. There were not many hundreds, and only Amol got 500-plus runs. This year you have two batsmen - Wasim and Ajinkya [Rahane] - who crossed 1000 after eight games. I pointed to each batsman which areas they were getting out in, which strokes they were more susceptible to playing around a particular score in their innings, and how they could nullify the mistakes to get to the target of hundred. We also decided that four batsmen should score at lease 800 each in the season. But more importantly we put a challenge to them by letting them know they would get four innings to grab the opportunity, do well for himself, and do well for the team.
As for the bowlers the target for the seniors was to achieve a minimum count of 25 victims, but I knew this would be difficult. The other area, where we found ourselves really weak, was in the fielding, so we worked hard on that, especially on our slip catching. We had high-intensity sessions of at least 50 catches each, which helped us a lot.
Was dropping Amol - the first time ever in his career that he has been benched after being named in the 15 - was the most difficult decision of your coaching career?
That was very, very tough. It was also emotional as we had won the Ranji title under him two years ago. That was my first year as coach and it was a very, very special moment for me, too, because I had never won the title during my playing days. But this time around we had to take the decision for nothing else but winning the tournament. There were only two other names apart from Amol's - Abhishek [Nayar] and Sairaj [Bahutule]. Abhishek had been batting well, and was giving us that extra balance. The main reason behind finally opting for Sai was because this was the first time in two years that we were playing a five-day game. We thought we might need a second spinner, and did not want to take a chance. Also Sachin was batting at No. 4, Amol's position.
It was a tricky thing, conveying the message to him. The timing was important so as to not break his confidence. In the end it went fine. Both me and Wasim went to his room on the eve of the game, and told him. Obviously he was disappointed, but agreed his was not an extraordinary season but he could still play a part. But if the seniors felt they needed to drop him, he would take that on the chin.
Is it true that Jaffer initially opposed the idea of opening with Samant?
Forget him, if I had proposed it to any other senior he would have first made sure I was actually serious. But I was, so I asked Wasim to think about it. In end it worked out. Didn't it?
What does the victory mean for you?
It just means Mumbai cricket has not gone down. If we had lost, our cricket would have gone back by three years. I vouched that each and every member worked hard. There were no shortcuts.